According to family information, Harry Albert Atkinson was born at Broxton in Cheshire, England, on 1 November 1831. He was the seventh of the thirteen children of John Atkinson and his wife, Elizabeth Smith. Harry Atkinson was born into 'the uneasy classes' of mid Victorian England. His father earned his living as an architect and stonemason and brought up his children to be independent and self-reliant. Harry, and the brother nearest him in age, Arthur, spent some years at private boarding schools but were mostly educated at home. John Atkinson was a Unitarian but he invited his children to choose for themselves in religion. Harry and Arthur joined the Church of England.
Harry became interested in New Zealand while he was at school. His eldest brother, John Staines, introduced his family to J. C. Richmond. The Richmonds and some of their Hursthouse cousins had already decided to emigrate and the younger Atkinsons' eagerness to join them was stimulated when their elder brother, W. S. Atkinson, left for Taranaki in 1849. A party of 10 Richmonds and Atkinsons and their friends, including Harry and Arthur, and their sister Emily, married to C. W. Richmond, embarked for New Zealand on the Sir Edward Paget on 9 December 1852. The journey was unusually slow, and the Atkinsons did not reach New Plymouth until 18 June 1853.
The brothers were not penniless immigrants. They had a modest capital but they expected to make their own way in New Zealand. They had learned some practical skills before leaving England. One of Harry's first tasks in the colony was to make six dozen pairs of boots for the local cobbler. He also worked as an under-man in a saw-pit. By the end of 1853 Harry and Arthur had purchased 200 acres on the Grey block for 10s. an acre and were busy clearing it. Harry's house at Hurworth, as the settlement was called, was built in 1854. Marriage to Amelia Jane Skinner at New Plymouth on 25 March 1856, and the births of their four children (Harry Dunstan, Edmund Tudor, Frances Elizabeth and Alfred Charles) enhanced Harry's enthusiasm for the life of a pioneer farmer. In 1857 he was rearing bullocks, cows, pigs, turkeys, ducks and fowls, and had set up a dairy to make butter and cheese. He was alert for any means of supplementing his income from land. He contracted to supply firewood to the troops stationed in Taranaki and also had a contract to carry mail between New Plymouth and Wellington. 'New Plymouth', he wrote to an aunt in 1854, 'is a most jolly place, and has more than fulfilled my expectations in all respects.'
Identification with Hurworth was complete. When he joined the provincial council representing the Grey and Bell constituency in January 1857 he told C. W. Richmond that he went 'to speak for the bush'. He remained a member of the council until 1864 and served again from November 1873 until the end of provincial government. For short periods he was deputy superintendent. Atkinson, like most other immigrants, saw his future primarily in terms of land development and he had no patience with Maori owners who refused to part with their land. 'Strafford's system of "thorough" as applied by Cromwell, is what we want here if anything is to be done; no half measures,' he wrote in 1860. The 'savage' indigenous population should be utterly suppressed and eventually assimilated by the superior British. If this could be achieved by intimidation that would be preferable to fighting, but if it were necessary to fight to gain the land Atkinson was ready for that.
In 1860, when war did break out in Taranaki, Harry Atkinson was appointed captain of No 2 Company of the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers. He fought at Waireka and Mahoetahi during the first Taranaki war. When fighting recommenced in 1863 he organised an irregular force of 50 'bushrangers' drawn from his old company. He long remained a firm advocate of Taranaki settler interests against Maori resistance. When Parihaka became a major issue in 1879–81 he was, though not directly involved as a minister, a firm advocate of the detention of prisoners without trial and of a show of force in Taranaki, though he also favoured the provision of reserves for Te Whiti and his people.
Atkinson was elected a member of the House of Representatives, representing Grey and Bell, in 1861. On 24 November 1864 he became minister for colonial defence in the Weld ministry. An extremely active minister, Atkinson spent as much time as possible in the field and energetically promoted military settlements. He retired in 1866 because Amelia's death in June 1865 made his children's needs his chief concern, but he was back, representing the Town of New Plymouth, from 1867 to 1869. On 13 June 1866 at New Plymouth, he had married his cousin, Annie Smith; they were to have three children, Samuel Arnold, Alice Lucy and Harry Temple.
The year 1872 marked a turning point in Atkinson's life. His first family were growing up (Dunstan was 15). The farm at Hurworth had been restored to prosperity after the wars. From 1868 to 1871 he and Annie visited England and their commitment to Taranaki was confirmed. He had been wryly amused to observe the difference between the conscious gentility of his English relatives and his own attitudes. All his life he considered himself English, but after 1870 he knew he was different from the English in England.
Atkinson was a thoughtful but not a nostalgic person. He concentrated on the present and the future, not the past. It must have seemed in 1872 that his future lay on the farm at Hurworth with his family. Yet when the temptation of a political fight appeared at his very gate a pugnacious quality in his personality made him helpless to resist it. The sitting member for Egmont retired and the leading contender for the seat was W. S. Moorhouse, who had been superintendent of Canterbury, and was aligned with William Fox, an upholder of Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake's cause. 'I won't see a Foxite get in if I can help it', Atkinson wrote to his own ally, E. W. Stafford. On 3 October 1872 Atkinson narrowly defeated Moorhouse and became member for Egmont.
In the 1870s the dominant political and economic issue was the rate at which capital should be borrowed for development. The pre-eminent political figure was Julius Vogel, the colonial treasurer. Atkinson, representing a small province with only three votes to bargain with, found himself under heavy pressure to obtain public works for his district. Thus tension with his constituents was created at the very outset. They were fervent Vogelites, but he feared the reckless rate of borrowing with which Vogel was, often unfairly, associated. The very need to borrow for development meant that the colony must be careful not to outrun its capacity to repay. Loans must be moderate, and spent carefully on projects that would increase production. The unremitting greed of voters for public works must be resisted: 'what the country wants, is not only a progressive Government, but also an economical Government…that will really address itself to the requirements of the country and not merely…of particular districts.'
Atkinson was no friend of the provincial councils. He did not see them as local democracy in action; true local government was a much more intimate affair than a provincial government. Moreover he shared Vogel's view that the provinces' reckless borrowing and refusal to co-operate either with the central government or with one another put the whole borrowing policy at risk. In September 1874 he joined Vogel's cabinet as minister of Crown lands and of immigration. When Vogel resigned to become agent general in London Atkinson became premier and colonial treasurer on 1 September 1876. In that month he carried the primary responsibility for abolishing the provincial councils and replacing them with a system of local administration of counties and boroughs. He intended that the central government would have the sole responsibility for borrowing money, but the localities would decide how and where it should be spent. He hoped that the new system would result in the even application of the colony's revenues to people's needs wherever they lived.
Unfortunately, no sooner were the new local bodies established than depression began to take hold, and the funds which should have oiled the new machinery dried up. All through the 1880s cries for the reform of local government assailed the central government. Atkinson saw the real problem as money, not organisation: local bodies did not have as much as they would like but were reluctant to raise it themselves. To Atkinson, they appeared to believe that if Parliament changed the system money would appear from somewhere.
The problem of making money come from somewhere was to be Atkinson's main task for the rest of his life. It was complicated by the depressed condition of the money markets and New Zealand's lack of export staples. Atkinson was confident of the future of New Zealand agriculture but he was realistic about its immediate inability to provide enough export income. He considered that the pace of borrowing and immigration would therefore have to be linked to a realistic assessment of the country's ability to repay. It was a personal, domestic view of the colonial economy. He continually repeated his basic message, that the government should 'proceed with public works at a moderate rate, such as prudent men, dealing with their own estates, and having to provide means out of them, would adopt.'
Nothing could be further from the ebullient optimism of his contemporary, Vogel, or the entrepreneurial zeal of the treasurer who followed him, J. G. Ward. But Atkinson was more realistic than Vogel and operated in completely different circumstances from Ward. He was also quite unlike them in temperament. They were city men and, to some extent, adventurers; exotics in the colonial setting. Atkinson was almost a copybook exemplar of colonial rural virtues. He liked to describe himself as a 'country settler'. He had planted his roots in Taranaki and saw hard work, thrift and moderation as the keys to success. Like William Gladstone, whom he admired, he saw money and finance not as the stuff of romance but as the fabric of morality. The middle of the road was invariably his chosen route. As economic conditions worsened, and politicians of both right and left proposed radical solutions, Atkinson became steadily more unpopular. His steadiness was often needed after a bout of more or less disastrous nostrums, but after a restorative dose of his common sense, the House would soon lurch away again in search of easier remedies.
Atkinson was colonial treasurer for 10 years between 1875 and 1891, through most of the worst years of the depression. He tried to contain borrowing within manageable limits, but he would never consent to cut it off altogether because so many of the immigrants of the 1870s were not settled on their own land but dependent on public works. Eventually Atkinson's prudent management made it possible for the Liberals to plan expansion from a relatively steady base when more favourable conditions opened up in the 1890s.
Atkinson's political interests were not confined to finance. In opposition from 1877 to 1879 he had an opportunity to consider the social responsibilities of central government in New Zealand, and in particular his attitude to land. How could the unemployed be put on the land as producers and not left as charity cases in the towns? His answer led him to support William Rolleston's perpetual leasehold proposal in the Land Bill 1882. What were the most equitable forms of taxation in a country without inherited wealth? By the end of his life Atkinson was suggesting income taxes to horrified audiences.
One of his most engaging characteristics was that as he grew older he grew more, not less, open-minded. Behind the substantial figure and the patriarchal whiskers lurked a readiness to entertain new ideas and a perennially youthful optimism. As well as favouring income taxes he considered taxing bachelors because he felt that they were selfishly evading the responsibility to support families. Between 1879 and 1890 he supported deferred payment for settlers on Crown land, perpetual leasehold, proportional representation, women's suffrage and temperance. He voted for the one man, one vote electoral reform of 1889. He enthusiastically supported Australasian and ultimately Anglo-Saxon federation and attended federation conferences in Australia in 1883 and 1891.
In July 1882 he startled the House by asking it to consider a scheme which he called national insurance. He had already noted, in the 1882 budget, that because private charity could not meet the needs of the sick and indigent it was the state's responsibility to care for them. He felt that private thrift, while an excellent individual habit, was an inadequate protection against the economic forces buffeting New Zealand in the 1880s. 'The only effectual remedy against pauperism seems to me to be not private thrift or saving, but co-operative thrift or insurance, and that to be thoroughly successful…must be national and compulsory.'
The national insurance scheme he proposed would have been based on a compulsory levy collected from workers by employers and paid into a central fund. Sickness, widows', orphans' and old age benefits would be graduated according to need; orphans, for example, would be paid 10s. weekly until they were three, and then 6s. until they were fifteen, because babies needed more care than children. Workers' contributions to the scheme would be supplemented by income from Crown leases, thus using the land as a national endowment. The scheme was far sighted and imaginative. It was intended to provide security against the worst accidents of colonial life – sickness and destitution – without unduly burdening taxpayers. However, Atkinson's enthusiasm was not shared by his colleagues. The scheme met with a chilly reception in the House and was no more warmly received in the country. He tried to interest a wider audience in 1883, but was unsuccessful. The resources of the state were welcome when it was a question of public works, but it was too early to persuade New Zealanders that a welfare state was possible.
Atkinson, moreover, was not a persuasive orator. The Taranaki Herald considered that 'as a popular agitator, or as one likely to arouse people on great questions, he will not succeed…. He is not emotional, nor very excitable, except in the excitement produced from antagonism, which is more pugnacious than poetic'. This was his greatest weakness as a politician. On his own 'patch' where many voters knew him or his family Atkinson was formidable. But he refused to offer sugar-coated pills. He insisted on telling audiences what he thought they should know, and away from his own ground that recipe was disastrous. 'I went boldly amongst the people and…told them home truths they had not heard for many a year,' he said of a particularly violent tour of the South Island in 1884. His Christchurch meeting was punctuated by fights between the speaker and members of his audience. In the House Atkinson relied on straight speaking and reason rather than rhetoric or persuasion. He never attracted a large personal following, nor did he seem to want one. If members wished to support his policies on their merits they were welcome to do so; if not, not. This take-it-or-leave-it attitude is all the more curious because Atkinson had become a professional politician. Unlike most of his contemporaries who took a turn of duty in Wellington for a few years, and for whom their private affairs were paramount, Atkinson made politics his chief occupation for 20 years.
It was unfortunate for Atkinson's subsequent reputation that his time in power coincided with the worst years of the depression. History tends to remember premiers and treasurers who spend imaginatively, or even merely lavishly; Atkinson's task was essentially to spread very little money as far as possible. He was premier thrice more after 1877; from 25 September 1883 to 16 August 1884, for a week at the end of August 1884, and from 8 October 1887 until 24 January 1891. In January 1888 he received the KCMG, but his leadership of the so-called 'Scarecrow' ministry was insecure and led to defeat. He countered John Ballance's victory in the 1890 election by 'packing' the Legislative Council with anti-Liberal members, including himself. In 1891, after defeat, he became speaker of the Council. He died in office, in his room in Parliament Buildings, on 28 June 1892.
By this time Atkinson was a relic of a bygone age. Politics had changed almost beyond recognition, from a colonial style of coalitions, factions and groups to a reasonably coherent party system. Those who made the obituary speeches hardly knew what to say. They stressed his personal qualities: his war record, his honesty and simplicity. One said he was 'the most perfect type of an old settler', a description that would have pleased Harry Atkinson very well.